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GANDHI: An Impossible Possibility by Sudhir Chandra. Translated by Chitra Padmanabhan. Routledge, Oxon, UK, 2017.

‘Where can Gandhi be today? Not just in India but anywhere.’ This somewhat worn out question has been addressed from such diverse vantage points that one more attempt may seem unnecessary. And yet, Sudhir Chandra’s grappling with this question in Gandhi: An Impossible Possibility is riveting, in part because the book records a pilgrimage and is no dry analytical exercise

Chandra’s pilgrimage began some 15 years ago when he came across the Prarthana Pravachan, a two volume collection of Gandhi’s evening prayer discourses from 1 April 1947 to 29 January 1948. It is well known that Gandhi was heartbroken not only by the fact of Partition but because many Hindus blamed him for it. His inability to stop the carnage of Partition was a death blow for Gandhi. Throughout that period Gandhi spoke of having lost his earlier desire to live to be 125 years old. At the prayer meeting on his first and only birthday in Independent India, Gandhi said that for him it was ‘a day of mourning’ because he was still alive to see his ideals and striving reduced to ashes. Was this bitter ‘end’ also the beginning of Gandhi’s historical end? If Gandhi himself concluded that his practice of ahimsa failed, then is ahimsa at all possible? These are some of the questions that drive Chandra’s meditative reading of the Prarthana Pravachan and the last ten months of Gandhi’s life.

Since Chandra is stepping across what for him is hallowed ground, he begins with the disclaimer that the reader should not expect this enquiry to be based on the doubt and suspicion required of a professional historian. The moving spirit of Chandra’s journey is faith. In part this is a defiance, perhaps even rejection, of the dominant western intellectual discourse in which there is no room for something as intangible, and allegedly irrational, as ‘faith’.

But there is also an important personal and political reason for Chandra undertaking this journey with faith. Like many Indians of his generation, people now in their sixties or seventies, Chandra loved Gandhi in his childhood and then developed an aversion towards him while in college. In was during his early years of research in modern Indian history that Chandra realized that neither the attachment nor the aversion were of his own doing; nor were they well thought out. With that began a process of actually discovering Gandhi and being challenged by him to question and think deeply.

Even those who have remained averse to Gandhi should be moved by Chandra’s account of Gandhi amid the carnage of Noakhali in 1946 surrounded by impenetrable darkness, as he confronts the failure of his practice of ahimsa. Never before had Gandhi’s mind been so unsteady or hazy. He spoke of his faculty of thinking failing him. At the heart of this sorrow was Gandhi’s bewilderment as to how satyagraha had brought forth so bitter a fruit.

In the Prarthana Pravachan of 14 July 1947, Gandhi declared that: ‘The struggle we waged over the last 30 years was not based on the strength of ahimsa. It was merely passive resistance and such resistance is a weapon of the weak. …Had we possessed the courage to wage a non-violent struggle, and that requires the courage of the brave, then we would have shown the world an entirely different picture of independent India. What we are presenting today, however, is an India severed into two, where brother is ranged against brother, each without an iota of trust in the other’ (Chandra, p. 33).

Yet, even in this beleaguered state, Gandhi persisted in his attempts to be ‘a trustee of all the Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Parsis, Jains and Christians living in India.’ Why then did he accept Partition? Why didn’t he fast unto death in order to stop Partition? As Chandra meticulously describes, Gandhi knew that since attempts to maintain peace had failed, trying to keep the country united by force would not work. For ‘…then the idea of Pakistan will occupy our hearts. Further, when the idea of Pakistan occupies our hearts and we are not prepared to live with our brothers under any circumstances, be warned, India will not survive as an independent nation’ (p. 43).

In response to angry letters from Hindus attacking him for not fasting unto death in order to stop Partition, Gandhi replied that these demands were rooted in hatred, while his desire to keep India united was based on love. As Chandra emphasizes, this fundamental distinction between love and hatred is central to understanding Gandhi’s actions. Writes Chandra:

‘The one speaking of love would say: our territory has been torn into two but why break heads over it? He would want to save the hearts from getting divided. Those filled with enemity were obsessed with territorial integrity for which they were ready to sacrifice even Gandhi. People who still hold Gandhi responsible for Partition must consider this distinction (p. 47). …The truth is that Gandhi submitted to Partition, but he did not accept it.’ (p. 48)

Similarly, Gandhi acknowledged that his practice of ahimsa had failed but that ‘ahimsa can never suffer bankruptcy.’ He remained immovably confident that even if lakhs of people are unable to validate the truth of ahimsa in their own lives, that would be their failure, not that of ahimsa.

Chandra’s narrative, particularly his detailed account of events surrounding the Calcutta fast in 1947 and the last fast in Delhi, help us to understand Gandhi’s inner struggle with this reality and provide us an intimate understanding of both the limitations of Gandhi’s ahimsa and how he deployed his waning moral authority. The consequent perspective gained by the reader is vital for our own troubled times – when dismissing Gandhi’s endeavours is virtually a default response.

Today, even more than in 1947, it is empowering to be reminded that in the midst of bitter attacks on him, Gandhi asserted that not only was he a true sanatani Hindu but this was ‘precisely why I am also a Muslim, a Parsi, a Christian and a Jew. To me they are like branches of one tree’ (p. 95). This is why even as the mass insanity at the time of Partition was causing Gandhi to break inside, he could still reach above the overwhelming darkness to posit faith in initiatives of basic decency.

Is it possible for ordinary people to live by and act with such faith? This question is equally if not more urgent in our troubled times. Chandra’s mission is not to deliver a simple or readymade answer. Instead, through a careful curation of actions and thoughts of Gandhi’s final ten months, Chandra offers a perspective that is at the same time rooted in faith as also unflinching in its reality checks.

For instance, even though ahimsa was a supreme value for Gandhi, he was fully aware that its practice could not be one-sided. If the civility of the advocates of ahimsa failed to improve the conduct of others and violence persisted then even the presence of a hundred Gandhis would not stem the tide of violence.

Chandra’s achievement is that by taking the reader into the innards of Gandhi’s final months, he opens up our minds to the complex and compelling nature of both ahimsa and Gandhi. But his closing statement – that it was our collective belief that once made Gandhi possible and our inability to believe in him that now renders him impossible – appears somewhat simplistic.

This whimper of a conclusion does not do justice to the passion and faith of Chandra’s narrative – so superbly translated by Chitra Padmanabhan. Then again, Chandra’s book is clearly part of a continuing journey so one can hope for further despatches from his ongoing quest.

Rajni Bakshi

Journalist and author, Mumbai


UNCLAIMED HARVEST: An Oral History of the Tebhaga Women’s Movement by Kavita Panjabi. Zubaan, New Delhi, 2017.

Kavita Panjabi’s book offers a magnificent collection of oral histories of activists who participated in the historic Tebhaga Movement in Bengal in the 1940s. Panjabi’s focus is on women’s oral histories and the book covers a wide range of life-experiences across the border that divides India from Bangladesh. The spatial expanse is complemented with the temporal framing that takes into account the history of Mahila Atma Raksha Samiti, the Famine of 1942, as well as the period of collecting the oral histories in the 1990s.

This book is a remarkable effort to recover women’s history of an intense political struggle through their own words. Ila Mitra, Rani Dasgupta, Bina Guha, Anima Biswas, Kalyani Dasgupta, Bimala Majhi, Phuli Goldar, Poko Oraoni – the names that are often listed as ‘women participants’ in conscientious critical histories of Tebhaga on the one hand, and have been part of the legends of Tebhaga on the other, emerge as layered personalities. As women start speaking, they break free from both the groove of ‘rear guard’ of the revolution and the straitjacket of ‘heroism’. All seven chapters of the book, divided into three sections ‘Approaching’ ‘Engaging’ and ‘Retrospection’, unfold with meticulous detail what women said, how they spoke, and what they wanted to convey through speech (and silence). Each chapter is titled with a Bengali phrase marking off the Bengali roots of Tebhaga and makes an effort to bring out the different phases, characteristics, and contexts of the movement through the language in which the respondents spoke. One of the major assets of this book is the photo-album of activists. It would have been a bonus if the photos could have been published in better quality, but that would have increased the price of the book. Having the opportunity to look at the photos inspires a pure Bengali proverb, Nai Mamar Cheye Kana Mama Bhalo (A Blind Uncle is Better Than Having No Uncle)!

V. Geetha’s excellent Foreword sets the tone of the book by locating it in the intellectual context of women’s histories that have broken the mould of adding women to mainstream historical narratives. Geetha identifies three moments: The Moment of Famine, the Moments of Joy and Love, and The Moment of Recall to lay out the dynamism of care, eros and violence in the gender politics of Tebhaga. In her Introduction, Panjabi states that she began this research with three main concerns – to understand Tebhaga from the perspective of women activists; to explore the history which has lost its relevance in public memory; and to ‘reclaim this history for a feminist vision of radical social change’ (p. xlvii). She also announces that she has largely refrained from referring to the rich body of creative literature on Tebhaga in Bangla. The reason for such a decision remains a minor query because Panjabi’s rationale comes in the form of a zeal to protect the pristine quality of memory harvested from oral histories of participants. The creative literature on Tebhaga is quite instrumental in keeping the movement alive in public memory as some of them have gained the status of classics like Manik Bandyopadhyay’s short stories Chhoto Bakulpurer Jatri and Haraner Natjamai; Sushil Jana’s short story Beti; and Sabitri Roy’s novel Paka Dhaner Gaan. Panjabi’s claim that Tebhaga is no longer alive in public memory contradicts the persistent popularity of these creative works, especially those by Manik Bandyopadhyay.

The reader of Unclaimed Harvest begins to enter an auditory world of difference, where voices are rich in varying cadences, pauses, silences and speech-acts from the initial pages of the first chapter Sholte Pakano – The Rolling of the Wick: The Mahila Atma Raksha Samiti and the Women’s Movement in Tebhaga. The narratives shared by women activists regarding their relief work during the famine open up multiple dimensions of their experiences as persuasive organizers, determined activists, and committed social workers. Bimala Majhi narrates a macabre tale of food scarcity about a mother and her child in Medinipur district, revealing the ‘horrific reality’ of everyday life in the time of a famine (p. 100). Bina Guha recollects the plight of peasant women due to unavailability of saari in the market in Dinajpur and their firm action that forced a local cloth merchant to give blankets and saaris (p. 114). Kamala Mukherjee tells the inspiring experience of marching through the streets of Calcutta with five thousand women in demand of food, clothing, and milk for children (p. 109). These recollections indicate the process through which women, from different social and cultural backgrounds, learnt about the people with whom they were planning to share their vision of emancipation. These experiences challenge the one-dimensional image of women in the Communist movement as the support system of the principal political activism and establishes the ways in which ‘relief work’ can become a key aspect of activism. Panjabi has made an important conceptual connection between ‘relief work’ and care work to explain women’s productive labour.

The three substantive chapters: Meyera Andolane Antarikata Aanlo (Women Brought an Inwardness to the Movement: Redefining Political Agency, Forging Affective Comradeships); Atiter Jed (The Persistence of the Past: The Santals and the Times of Revolution); Premer Jomir Khonje (In Search of the Terrain of Love: Alienation in a Politics of Violence) contain a ‘thick description’ of women’s experiences inside the movement. Women’s memories range from the way many of them were inspired by the stories of the Russian revolution in 1917 and by the leading role Russian women played during and after the revolution, to the way they became conscious of the collective self of the movement, to the ways in which they began to love, to fall in love, and to appreciate relations of love among their comrades. Panjabi has interviewed both men and women activists even though her emphasis remains on women’s memories. Expanding the respondents beyond women activists is a good research strategy as they unfold a complex matrix of gender politics through men’s and women’s memories, especially in men’s memories of their women comrades and women’s memories of their men comrades. The uneven terrain of such memories makes the network of intimate relationships more interesting. Kalyani Dasgupta, from Jalpaiguri district, reminiscences that her husband Sachin Dasgupta was such a quiet man that, ‘I suppose I married him rather than him marrying me’ (p. 148) and yet he firmly refused all the financial help from her father. Heleketu Singh, a Rajbangshi peasant from Dakhhinpara village in Dinajpur district, remembered with ‘joyous, wholesome pride’ his wife Jaya’s fierce commitment to gender equality in the movement (p. 149).

Panjabi’s interviews with Anima Biswas, Phuli Goldar, and Amal Sen are compelling examples of the intricacies that connected activists across social divides. The tragic tale of love between Anima Biswas and Karuna Kishore, as narrated by Amal Sen, had ‘no narratives, no scripts […] neither in the realm of the personal nor of the political histories that are our legacy’ (p. 241). The difficulties of conjugal life within a political party, in the midst of a collective mobilization that was turning increasingly violent, tore the young couple apart. The intense connection between love and political activism becomes discernable when both Anima and Karuna Kishore left the field of activism after their separation and became engrossed in battling their own demons. Phuli Goldar, a ‘licentious’ young widow in Narail, attracted the attention of Anima Biswas in the first phase of organizing the movement for her militancy. Anima Biswas was instrumental in Goldar’s eventual participation in the movement. There are recollections by Amal Sen about another woman activist, Sarala Singha, who played a significant role in quashing the rumours of Goldar’s sexual corruption. The camaraderie forged between men and women as well as among women expands the meaning of comradeship and begins to address gender inequality from a critical point of view. Panjabi refers to an incident, remembered by two of her respondents, that a peasant woman asked during a Krishak Samiti meeting in her village whether her comrade at home (referring to her husband) had the right to beat her. This question has become a part of the legend of Tebhaga, celebrating the peasant women’s agency in challenging older structures of controlling women’s lives.

The exceptional welcoming of Ila Mitra at Nachole by her Santal comrades fifty years after Tebhaga (in 1996) has become Panjabi’s context to situate the experiences of violence woven in the memory-history of the movement. The legend of Ila Mitra as a leader and her courage under torture had been created through testimonies, fiction, poetry and songs. Panjabi observes ‘[s]he is the most written about leader of the Tebhaga movement; yet, paradoxically, no historical account has been able to offer an adequate explanation for this unprecedented event of 1996, or for the deep-rooted historical and political loyalties at work between her and Santals, literally bracketing off fifty years of no contact’ (p. 191). Panjabi reads Mitra’s testimony, along with the interviews of Maleka Begum (Mitra’s biographer), Santal songs, and memories of her compatriots in the movement in order to explore the jubilation of 1996. Panjabi invokes trauma, sexual violence, and the different sense of time among Santals to make sense of Mitra’s enduring popularity.

The experiences of violence return as a theme in the following chapter through the remembrance of Amal Sen and Anima Biswas. Violence, in both instances, is analysed as suffering while the period of armed struggle in the Tebhaga movement, especially in Kakdwip shies away from a thorough analysis of women’s role in perpetrating violence. Panjabi quotes in detail from the interviews with Amal Sen to depict the unease with the ‘Ranadive line’, accepting his conclusion that the armed movement was a ‘mistake’ committed by the party. Sen and Biswas remember that the armed struggle brought in an environment of suspicion and violent death within the dissenting groups, and cast a shroud over the principal ideological standpoint of the movement. Panjabi’s analysis of violence seems to be juxtaposing the contemporary condemnation of all armed violence as pathological, without critically engaging with the place of armed struggle in the Communist ideology/movements internationally in the 1940s.

The final chapter of the book ends with an assertive claim that women in the Tebhaga movement etched out a new language of solidarity through compassion, love and care. The ethics and aesthetics of participation in a collective mobilization shaped their subjectivities, which enabled them to address issues of caste, religion, ethnicity and gender without losing sight of the declared class politics of their ideology. The legacy of Tebhaga women, as Panjabi perceives, has found a place of permanence in the autonomous women’s movement of India.

Mallarika Sinha Roy

Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi


INTIMACY UNDONE: Marriage, Divorce and Family Law in India by Malavika Rajkotia. Speaking Tiger Books, Delhi, 2017.

MATRIMONIAL litigation has an emotive component where the law is used as a tool to reach emotional closure, sometimes through fair, rights-based means and, on many occasions, through the ‘misuse’ of the process of law. Malavika Rajkotia’s Intimacy Undone: Marriage, Divorce and Family Law in India captures this hidden emotive side of matrimonial litigation in India. Matrimonial conflict, she explains, is much deeper and far more complex than what gets presented in the lawyers’ brief or the judicial orders. With the object of foregrounding the hidden aspects of divorce proceedings, she weaves into the legal narrative her experiences as a woman lawyer in the gendered courtrooms, anecdotes from personal and professional life and stories of her clients’ grief, despair and resentment as they struggle through painful divorce proceedings. The non-linearity of style and liberal borrowing from the constitutive contexts of law – history, culture, politics, literature, mythology, popular culture – give the book a form refreshingly distinct from the standard legal writing which is catalogued only with hard law, i.e. statutes and cases.

Rajkotia traces the messy history of personal laws in India – how the shape and content of family law was determined in and through the colonial encounter as the British interpreted the scriptures and customs ‘to form a unique amalgam of Indian and English common law.’ Independent India inherited this legacy, and ‘reforms’ in marriage and divorce related laws were widely imported from the UK, the most significant of them being the deeply problematic ‘fault theory’ as the basis for divorce and judicial separation. However, an answer to the present flaws in the system is not a return to ‘a glorious past’, for that would be tantamount to a regressive call for a return to the scripturally sanctioned oppressive notions against women and lower castes.

The book, as it deals with different aspects of matrimonial litigation, revolves around three concerns: the promise of gender equality, respect for religious pluralism and an ability of empathic engagement with the litigants’ rather complex psychic states as they labour to discover peace through law. She understands that emancipatory reform of family law is possible only if gender based inequalities at the heart of institutions of family and marriage are acknowledged and addressed, when the rhetoric of reform is severed from the agenda of majoritarian politics that erodes the promise of cultural pluralism, and when legal practitioners step out of the ‘realm of the rational’ in order to understand the human failings in intimate relationships.

It has long been established by feminist scholarship that family law is a gendered realm where the discourse is contingent on the subjective moralistic values of the lawyers and judges. Rajkotia candidly accepts that ‘the present legal system is a form of primitive patriarchy at its worst, and benevolent patriarchal patronage at its best.’ Therefore, the objective of family law, according to her, ‘is to dilute the impact of such unfair attitudes, which can and do translate into illegal acts. ‘Feminism’, she is clear, ‘is an active movement to arrive at gender equality.’ It is as much for men, as it is for women: for men, too, carry the burden of masculinity. Advancing a strong critique of marriage as she writes about love and sex within matrimony, she discusses various decisions where sexual intimacy was made the primary focus of the divorce proceedings, exacerbating women’s vulnerability in marriage: since absence of sex amounts to cruelty, sex becomes a marital duty and consequently, women may not be able to plead marital rape as cruelty!

Rajkotia provides insights into how the fault theory of divorce, designed with the view to preserve the institution of marriage, has turned matrimony into a ‘holy deadlock’. Easy divorce, it is her argument, will help the institution of marriage. It is to be noted that divorce petitions are resisted not merely for financial and social reasons; anger, resentment and bitterness are often at the root of resistance to divorce. Offering an important insight into human emotions, she rightly contends that cruelty emerges from a helpless desire to control. During the divorce process both sides turn into ‘righteous avenger[s] for their own perception of the suffering they have borne’: victims turn into aggressors, and former aggressors suffer the other’s victimhood as an act of aggression.

Discussing the progressive 2005 amendments to the Hindu Succession Act, Rajkotia argues through various illustrations how the sense of entitlement of a man to the family property has not diluted despite this law. Maintenance and alimony also remain fiercely contested claims in the divorce proceedings. According to Rajkotia, maintenance and alimony should be decided on the basis of needs, wants and compensation. Presently, the lifestyle rule only provides for needs. She makes an argument not only in favour of counting the unpaid work of women to assess their claims of maintenance from the husband’s wealth (for ‘the tenure of a marriage is the investment for which it is reasonable to expect a return’), but also for compensation for the anguish caused in marriage to either of the spouses. The idea of such quantification of pain, loss and trauma, however, makes one wonder if the future of family law can only be imagined through the translation of emotions into economic justice. It is difficult to reconcile Rajkotia’s critique of consumerism with her position on lifestyle based maintenance wants which ‘can include shopping worth lakhs, luxury travel, membership of exclusive wine and food societies, personal trainers and expensive diet food.’ Her feminist position contests those who would view such financial claims as immoral, but her feminism has no critique of ‘class’ or consumerism of the neoliberal variety that forms the core of familial relationships, including matrimony.

There is a lot to be said about children in divorce courts. The chapter on children is particularly striking as it creates a much more complex image of a child than the dominant view, according to which a child is an innocent being whose welfare is to be decided by all-knowing adults: parents, counsellors, lawyers, judges. While dealing with children, it is important to take note of their complex subjectivity, their different sense of time, their vulnerability as much as the deception and manipulation they learn from the surrounding environment. Unfortunately, the custody courts are yet another arena for parents to fight to claim their exclusive control of the child. Rajkotia quite rightly contends that the word ‘custody’ (which implies exclusive ownership of the child by one parent) should be substituted by ‘co-parenting’. It is not only the adversarial legal process that deals with children in an instrumental fashion, but parents themselves reduce their children to ‘divisible assets’ or worse, tools to take revenge. However, to realize the principle of the ‘best interest of the child’, the courts need to evolve innovative processes and adjudicative techniques such that the voice of the child is not smothered in the cacophonic legalese and warring parents. This can happen only if the court is singularly guided by the welfare of the child, rather than equal rights of the parents.

She builds an argument for right to privacy (of adult members of the family) within the family and also during the divorce proceedings. A 2015 decision of the Delhi High Court decision lays down important guidelines to ensure privacy and confidentiality in matrimonial matters so that the dignity of the persons involved is protected. On the misuse of gender specific laws, her position is categorical and clear: the benefits of women-enabling legislations outweigh the ‘pain’ of misuse and, therefore, these laws should be retained. The abuse of law by women, viz. the retributive justice that they seek by pushing for penal provisions against the family-in-law needs to be situated within the pent up anger and disappointment, as much as the social rebuke of failing to ‘adjust’ in marriage. The desire for payback is often rooted in grief and suffering – the way to deal with it is not to remove the women-enabling laws, but to work towards repairing the social rubric which produces such damaged psyches.

Further, there is also misuse of the laws by men in the family proceedings who manipulate the legal system to force their wives into submission. She points out that intelligent and honest investigation can filter false complaints by both men and women. Making an important clarification about ‘false’ accusations, she states that rejection of some evidence by court does not necessarily mean that it was a false case. It may be that the evidence did not meet the high standard of proof that is needed in a criminal trial. But the same evidence may pass the lower standard of proof in civil cases.

On the issue of the Uniform Civil Code, she takes the view that reforms, including reforms towards gender equality should emanate from the community, including the women of that community. Moreover, UCC does not make it incumbent only on the minorities to introduce reforms; the Hindu majority also needs to answer whether it is ready for a UCC where marital rape would no longer be protected under the guise of a sacrament, where kanyadaan which is at the root of dowry will be given up, where Hindu women will not be cast into stereotypical roles of devoted sacrificing wives and mothers and the caste system and Brahmanical patriarchy will be rejected. Understanding the politics of UCC, she remarks that a push towards UCC may prove counter-productive as it may impel the minorities to adopt outmoded identities and customary practices as a defence mechanism.

However, in her analysis one finds an uncritical acceptance of the court evolved ‘essential practices’ doctrine which she believes maintains a fair balance between religion and illegal practices. The Supreme Court, according to her, can drive reform in the domain of family law; it can ‘cajole and convince all religions’ and ‘try to convince upper caste Hindus that the caste system is not a part of Hindu religion.’ With the memory of the aftermath of Shah Bano still alive, such faith in the Supreme Court appears unrealistic and almost naïve. In fact, it undercuts her own critique of the top-down structure of reform where people are not participants but objects of social change.

Rajkotia illustrates that the expectations from law to do justice in family law are fraught with many unanswered issues since there are dangers in expecting the law to adjudicate on moral and emotional aspects of marital relationships. What would be ‘justice’ in a situation when a fatigued and exhausted person seeks divorce from a mentally ill spouse? Would ethics of care in such a situation transform into a legal obligation to stay in the marriage? The book pushes the reader to think about these questions without offering easy or quick solutions. This makes it a welcome addition to the scarce critical literature on family law in India. However, Rajkotia’s politics largely remains confined within the liberal frame. Her uncritical endorsement of the Verma Committee report, half-baked critique of consumerism and the blind spot of ‘class’ in her version of feminism run the danger of slipping into a privileged, neoliberal subject position, thereby circumscribing the project of reimagining the domain of family law.

Latika Vashist

Indian Law Institute, Delhi